‘Safe at Home’ slows virus outbreak, but endangers domestic violence survivors (Guest Post: Molly Bryant)

COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.

NOTE: OK Policy is not a state agency and we cannot assist in applying for state services or provide legal advice.

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As Oklahoma families hunker down in their homes because of the COVID-19 outbreak, many domestic violence advocates are bracing for the increase in family violence. While essential for public health, the so-called “safe at home” policies have isolated domestic violence survivors with their abusers under tense conditions making them, ironically, less safe at home. Children are out of school, and parents are working remotely, suddenly unemployed, or are providing essential services that put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and passing it to their loved ones. We are living in a new “normal,” and that normal feels stressful, out of control, and indefinite. Unfortunately, these elements are a common recipe for domestic violence. 

Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behaviors used by a person to gain power and control over another person, typically within the context of an intimate relationship. Those abusive behaviors can be physical, emotional, financial, reproductive, and more. All categories of abusive behavior are toxic and destructive in their own way. One in 4 women will experience severe domestic violence in their lifetime, and despite the common belief that domestic violence only affects women, 1 in 9 men will experience severe domestic violence. Oklahoma children witness domestic violence at rates higher than the rest of the country, so this has, and will continue to be, a deeply rooted and widespread trauma in our community. 

To end this cycle of domestic violence, my organization — Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS) — works alongside 22 tribal programs and 20 mainstream programs. Even during this global pandemic, DVIS provides outpatient counseling, safe housing, legal services, outreach, and education in Tulsa and Creek counties. 

Survivors have a tremendously difficult time escaping their abusers under regular circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses within systems that have long isolated survivors of domestic violence and prevented them from leaving their abusers and living independently. Some of the systemic barriers that survivors often face when attempting to escape violence include lack of affordable housing, childcare costs, lack of affordable health care, and poor transportation. These barriers are the invisible, rarely spoken about “shelter in place” policies of our society.

Policy solutions can support domestic violence survivors

Isolation tactics from abusers can be so powerful and deep that even if we had solid systemic support, some survivors would never be able to escape the control. However, many survivors are able to find a way out and they often need structural support to find healing, recover financially, and build an independent life. Policies like universal child care would be life changing for survivors who are leaving violent homes with their children. At DVIS, we provide free child care to survivors at our emergency shelter when they are going on job interviews, family court, or therapy. 

Expanding Medicaid would mean that survivors would no longer have to depend on their spouses for health care coverage, which would remove a financial strain and increase economic self-sufficiency. 

Paid family leave is needed not just during the COVID-19 outbreak when children are home from school, but all the time because, otherwise, the only option to crisis is returning back to violence and abuse. Something is fundamentally wrong with our system when this is a survivor’s only option. It may seem like a stretch to connect policies like these to domestic violence, but it’s not. Every single day, advocates of domestic violence attempt to navigate these systems to provide safety in a world that was not set up to support survivors. 

Domestic violence is about power and control. Isolation is one of the most powerful forms of control both through the individual behaviors of abusers and by social systems. For example, an abusive partner may manipulate family gatherings making them tense for the survivor and their family to the point that the relationship between survivor and family becomes strained, fractured, and eventually breaks. The survivor may then lose their network of social support that would have provided safe places to stay if the survivor had decided to leave the violent home (this is an example of individual tactic of isolation). Without a social network, the survivor may attempt to leave but cannot apply for a job because they cannot afford childcare during their job interviews (systemic isolation). Survivors often go back to their abusers, because they have little resources to survive after prolonged isolation both individually and systemically. 

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has exacerbated domestic violence to a degree that we will not understand for months or even years. When the crisis draws to a close, the damage will be revealed, and domestic violence advocates across the globe are speculating that it will be disastrous. Abusers will continue to isolate survivors and exploit the systems that weren’t functioning well before and aren’t likely to function well on the other side of the COVID-19 outbreak unless we radically overhaul these systems. However, most abusers (and most of society) underestimate domestic violence programs and their fierce advocates who continue to provide services and will do everything they can to support survivors of domestic violence. 

If you are in Tulsa County or Creek County, you can call Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS) on our 24/7 crisis and information line at 918-743-5763. We are still here to help, and we will always be here to help. We serve all survivors, all languages, all genders, and all sexual orientations. 

In other parts of the state, here are resources: 

  • Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, 1-800-522-7233
  • Oklahoma’s Native Alliance Against Violence, Info@oknaav.org
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-779-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) or www.thehotline.org to chat confidentially with an advocate  


About the author

Molly Bryant is a Licensed Master Social Worker and the Underserved Outreach Advocate for the Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS). She is married to Ryan Gentzler, director for OK Policy’s Open Justice Oklahoma program. 


The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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